John Crowe Ransom Ransom, John Crowe - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

John Crowe Ransom 1888-1974

American poet, critic, and editor.

Ransom is considered to be one of most important American poets and critics of the early twentieth century. He is associated with three important literary and critical movements—the Fugitives, Agrarianism, and New Criticism—and is regarded as the dean of Southern poetry and criticism. Scholars laud his contribution to twentieth-century letters, including his founding of the influential literary magazine the Kenyon Review. They contend that his verse reflects his interest in rural, traditional Southern values, mortality, the transience of beauty, and the manifestation of God in everyday life.

Biographical Information

Ransom was born on April 30, 1888, in Pulaski, Tennessee. The son of a Methodist minister, he grew up in several small Middle Tennessee towns where his father preached. Because of this peripatetic lifestyle, Ransom and his siblings were taught at home. When he was finally enrolled in school at the age of ten, school officials realized that he was academically gifted and recommended that he be sent to the Bowen School, a local private school that had a rigorous college preparatory curriculum. In 1903 he graduated from high school and was admitted to Vanderbilt University. After two years, he was forced to drop out because of financial problems. He taught secondary school for two years, and then returned to Vanderbilt to finish his education. In 1909 he received his bachelor's degree, and because of his excellent grades, he received a Rhodes scholarship. He earned another bachelor's degree, in Litterae Humaniores, at Oxford University, which required reading Greek and Latin history, literature, and philosophy in the original languages. Returning to the United States, he took a job for one year teaching Latin and Greek at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. He then returned to Vanderbilt as an instructor and became involved with a group of students and faculty members that met frequently to discuss religion and philosophy; this group became known as the Fugitives. During this time he began to write and publish poetry in local periodicals. In 1917 he joined the U.S. Army, and he served overseas in France during World War I with the Fifth Field Artillery. While on duty, he revised his poems, which were published in 1919 as Poems about God.

Upon his discharge from the army, he intended to move to New York City to work as a freelance journalist, but ended up returning to Vanderbilt University as an instructor. He resumed his frequent meetings and poetry sessions with the Fugitives, which included such members as Allen Tate and Donald Davidson. In 1922 the group began publishing a poetry magazine entitled the Fugitive, which published Southern poetry influenced by the modernism of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. The Fugitive, which was published until 1925, proved to be an important magazine. Critics note that during this time Ransom wrote his best poetry. In 1924 his second collection of verse, Chills and Fever, was published and garnered much positive critical attention. His last book of verse, Two Gentlemen in Bonds was published in 1927 and was deemed an impressive poetic achievement. From that point, he wrote only one new poem, and was satisfied to revise his earlier verse and concentrate on his literary criticism. The creative and critical spirit inspired by the Fugitives led to a new literary movement, Agrarianism, as well as a new way to analyze art called New Criticism. Agrarianism promoted the virtues of the rural South, favoring an agrarian economy over an industrial one, as well as a connection to nature and a rejection of materialism. In 1937, after he left Vanderbilt University and took a position at Kenyon College in Ohio, Ransom became a vital figure in the development of New Criticism. As promulgated in the Kenyon Review, which Ransom founded in 1939, New Criticism advocated analyzing a work of art on its own, independent of outside influences. Critics have had a mixed critical reaction to Ransom's critical theories. In 1964 the publication of his revised edition of Selected Poems led to a National Book Award. Ransom died in Gambier, Ohio, on July 3, 1974.

Major Poetic Works

In the period between 1915 and 1927 Ransom wrote around 160 poems that he revised several times in the following years. Critics describe his verse as unmistakably Southern in character and full of dichotomies: mortality and the vigor of youth; agrarianism and industrialism; idealism and reality; the tension between mind and body, as well as between reason and sensibility. It is also noted that he was able to establish a certain aesthetic distance in his poetry that affords the reader an objective, clear perspective on his work. His first collection of verse, Poems about God, explores religious and spiritual matters and is regarded as heavily influenced by the work of Robert Frost. Ransom later rejected these poems, contending that he had put too much emphasis on structure and not enough on “texture,” or figurative language. His next few collections, including Chills and Fever and Two Gentlemen in Bonds, contain his best-known and admired poems. In “The Equilibrists” Ransom underscores the tension between reason and passion, as two lovers repress their desire in order to adhere to societal mores. In the epitaph to the poem, Ransom memorializes their love, which will be consummated in death. The concept of death and decay is a recurring thematic concern in Ransom's verse. His renowned poem “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter” explores the death of a young, energetic girl through the eyes of her neighbor. The piece expresses the neighbor's anger at such a senseless and tragic death. In “Janet Waking,” a young girl is forced to face mortality when she finds her pet hen has died during the night. The fleeting nature of feminine beauty is the subject of “Blue Girls,” a poem that focuses on a group of Southern schoolgirls who revel in their attractiveness and youth. In “Old Mansions,” Ransom asserts that ideals of the South should be preserved in spite of changing circumstances and the passage of time.

Critical Reception

Commentators debate whether Ransom's legacy rests more on his poetry or his critical work. Critics that favor his poetry argue that despite his limited poetic output, he was able to reflect modern sensibility and combine qualities such as delicacy and strength, as well as elegance and earthiness in his verse. They also consider him a master stylist, and praise his poems as well-crafted, finely textured pieces that explore the ambiguities, paradoxes, and ironies that make up modern life. Recent critical studies have examined Ransom's tendency to revise his work, the role of meter in his poetry, the influence of his religious faith on his verse, and the representation of Southern women in his poems. The influence of Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot has also been a frequent topic of critical discussion. Although some reviewers find Ransom's poetry to be cold and distant and view him as a minor American poet, many consider him a distinctive and profoundly influential writer whose verse will not only endure but deserves greater critical attention.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Poems about God 1919

Chills and Fever 1924

Grace after Meat 1924

Two Gentlemen in Bonds 1927

Selected Poems 1945; revised and enlarged edition, 1963; second revised and enlarged edition, 1969

Poems and Essays (poetry and essays) 1955

God without Thunder: An Unorthodox Defense of Orthodoxy (essays) 1930

The World's Body (essays) 1938

The New Criticism (essays) 1941

Poetics (essays) 1942

A College Primer of Writing (nonfiction) 1943

Beating the Bushes: Selected Essays, 1941-1970 (essays) 1972

Selected Essays of John Crowe Ransom [edited by Thomas Daniel Young and John Hindle] (essays) 1984

Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom [edited by Young and George Core] (letters) 1985

William Vesterman (essay date summer 1984)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Vesterman, William. “The Motives of Meter in ‘Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter.’” The Southern Quarterly 22, no. 4 (summer 1984): 42-53.

[In the following essay, Vesterman analyzes the meter of “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter.”]

… metre is fundamental in the problem posed to the artist … Here let us ask the question always in order against a Milton poem: What was the historical metrical pattern already before him, and what are the liberties he takes with it? For he does not cut patterns out of the whole cloth, but always takes an existing pattern; stretches it dangerously close to the limits that the pattern will...

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Thomas Daniel Young (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Young, Thomas Daniel. “The Fugitives: Ransom, Davidson, Tate.” In The History of Southern Literature, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., pp. 319-32. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt, Young provides an overview of Ransom's early verse, contending that few poets of Ransom's generation “have been able to represent with greater accuracy and precision the inexhaustible ambiguities, the paradoxes and tensions, the dichotomies and ironies that make up modern life.”]

In the summer of 1920 a group of young men—Vanderbilt University faculty members and students plus a few townspeople—began meeting at the home of James...

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Louise Cowan (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Cowan, Louise. “Innocent Doves: Ransom's Feminine Myth of the South.” In American Letters and the Historical Consciousness: Essays in Honor of Lewis P. Simpson, edited by J. Gerald Kennedy and Daniel Mark Fogel, pp. 191-213. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Cowan elucidates Ransom's Southern attitude toward women as evinced in his poetry.]

The poems of John Crowe Ransom have been held in high regard during his lifetime and well beyond, widely heralded despite their apparent lack of kinship with other modernist verse. Nearly all of them were written before 1927, though Ransom revised individual pieces from time to...

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A. R. Coulthard (essay date spring 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Coulthard, A. R. “Ransom's ‘Vision by Sweetwater.’” The Explicator 46, no. 3 (spring 1988): 41-2.

[In the following essay, Coulthard links “Vision of Sweetwater” to the Susanna story in the biblical Apocrypha.]

“Where have I seen before, against the wind, / These bright virgins, robed and bare of bonnet?” the narrator of John Crowe Ransom's “Vision by Sweetwater” wonders of the young visitors to his aunt's farm. He has “seen” them in the Apocrypha account of Susanna and the elders, a fact that elucidates the meaning of this otherwise bewildering poem.

Lust is the link between Ransom's poem and the Susanna story. What...

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Cleanth Brooks (essay date spring 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Brooks, Cleanth. “John Crowe Ransom: As I Remember Him.” The American Scholar 58 (spring 1989): 211-33.

[In the following essay, Brooks recollects his personal friendship with Ransom and examines several of his poems that provide insight into his life.]

Every poet to some degree reveals himself in his poetry, from the most frantic “confessional” poet who makes it a point of honor to tell all, on to the most reserved of our classical poets who prefer to keep their personal affairs to themselves. John Crowe Ransom was not interested in providing confessions, but three of his poems in particular served to make revelations of his personal life. “Tom, Tom...

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Kieran Quinlan (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Quinlan, Kieran. “Poems about ‘God.’” In John Crowe Ransom's Secular Faith, pp. 14-24. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Quinlan contends that the religious themes of the poems comprising Poems about God reflect Ransom's early religious development.]

Perhaps what strikes one most about Ransom as he prepared to return to the United States from Oxford in 1913 is his general buoyancy. Certainly that is the case whenever one thinks of a morbid Eliot in contrast. For Ransom, the pain of religious loss may already have become “chronic and low-grade,” for there is no sense whatever that he was suffering...

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Henry W. Russell (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Russell, Henry W. “John Crowe Ransom: Traditionalist, Formalist, and Critic.” The Formalist: A Journal of Metrical Poetry 1, no. 2 (1990): 15-23.

[In the following essay, Russell offers a thematic and stylistic overview of Ransom's verse.]

After reading the giants like Yeats and Frost, and the lesser but still great talents of Robinson and Auden, the lover of modern formal poetry can do no better than to encounter the dozen or so perfect lyrics of John Crowe Ransom. The complete selection of his poems numbers merely seventy-two, and yet it is difficult to imagine a modern writer whose poetry and criticism comprise a more highly finished and distinguished...

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Noralyn Masselink (essay date winter 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Masselink, Noralyn. “Apparition Head versus Body Bush: The Prosodical Theory and Practice of John Crowe Ransom.” The Southern Quarterly 29, no. 2 (winter 1991): 17-30.

[In the following essay, Masselink offers a prosodical study of Ransom's poetry and delineates the disparity between the subject of meter in his critical writings and his use of it in his own verse.]

Concerning Ransom's techniques and ideas, Karl F. Knight observes in The Poetry of John Crowe Ransom: A Study of Diction, Metaphor, and Symbol, “Some aspects of his work have been treated with relative fullness, while other important elements have been merely touched on or hardly...

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Brad Leithauser (review date 5 August 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Leithauser, Brad. “Sly Visitor.” The New Republic 205, no. 6 (5 August 1991): 36-41.

[In the following review of the reissue of Ransom's Selected Poems, Leithauser determines the reasons for the poet's waning popularity and urges a reappraisal and greater attention to his verse.]

In one of his sonnets John Crowe Ransom conjures up a pair of lovers with the phrase “a broken whispering by night,” words that might also describe the passing of the centenary of his birth three years ago. So far as I know, the anniversary came and went almost unmarked by the critical retrospectives, literary symposia, and ceremonial hoopla that would seem the due of an...

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Gloria G. Jones (essay date fall 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Gloria G. “Ransom's ‘Good Ships.’” The Explicator 51, no. 1 (fall 1992): 39-41.

[In the following essay, Jones provides an interpretation of a specific line of the poem “Good Ships.”]

Taking the old cliché, “like two ships that pass in the night” Ransom constructs a powerful metaphor for two people unable to grasp the possibilities in a chance encounter in “Good Ships.” As Robert Buffington points out in The Equilibrist, “Except for one line, each detail is fitted to the one metaphor, and gracefully” (52). The implications of the poem are numerous. Not only does the couple fail to connect, they slip by one another by...

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Scott Romine (essay date fall 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Romine, Scott. “The Invisible I: John Crowe Ransom's Shadowy Speaker.” Mississippi Quarterly 46, no. 4 (fall 1993): 529-45.

[In the following essay, Romine examines the speaker in Ransom's verse and argues that “the ironic stance usually ascribed to this figure fails to explain fully its role.”]

The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry introduces John Crowe Ransom with the claim that his “poems could never be mistaken for anybody else's.”1 As introductions go, it is a good one, yet the poetry itself—like its creator—tends to stand a bit aloof, an easy acquaintance, but difficult to fathom. Robert Penn Warren has said that there is...

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Douglas Fowler (essay date winter 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Fowler, Douglas. “Ransom's ‘Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter.’” The Explicator 52, no. 2 (winter 1994): 99-101.

[In the following essay, Fowler locates the “emotional life” of “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter” in the comical and enchanting encounter between the geese and the little girl.]

Although John Crowe Ransom's “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter” has been widely admired and anthologized since its publication in 1924, commentators seem to have had difficulty describing, in this instance, the nature of the poet's achievement. For example, Robert Penn Warren (98) speaks somewhat patronizingly of Ransom's “admirable little...

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Anthony Hecht (essay date spring 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hecht, Anthony. “Poetry: John Crowe Ransom.” The Wilson Quarterly 18, no. 2 (spring 1994): 92-3.

[In the following essay, Hecht discusses Ransom as a modernist and an ironist and explicates his poems “Captain Carpenter” and “Philomela.”]

Any conventional list of the great modernist poets would begin with Eliot and Pound, Rilke, Valéry, and Rimbaud. These were not the only important poets of their era, possibly not even the greatest. One thinks of such others as Stevens, Frost, Montale, and Yeats. But the ones designated as modernist are credited with changing our whole mode of feeling, the voice and vocation of poetry itself. It is therefore...

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A. R. Coulthard (essay date winter 1996)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Coulthard, A. R. “Ransom's ‘Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter.’” The Explicator 54, no. 2 (winter 1996): 94-5.

[In the following essay, Coulthard argues that the protagonist of “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter” is not the young girl, but the girl's neighbor and narrator of the poem.]

Douglas Fowler's commentary [on “Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter”] in the winter 1994 Explicator, citing ironic comedy as Ransom's means of rendering the death of John Whiteside's daughter “wasteful and tragic” (101) without mawkishness, captures the poem's theme but misses its real device for aesthetic control and ignores its major character....

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Richard Tillinghast (essay date February 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Tillinghast, Richard. “John Crowe Ransom: Tennessee's Major Minor Poet.” The New Criterion 15, no. 6 (February 1997): 24-30.

[In the following essay, Tillinghast discusses Ransom as a significant minor American poet.]

For a generation of readers influenced by the literary criticism of T. S. Eliot, the distinction between “major” and “minor” poets is an accepted commonplace. The implication, of course, is that a major poet is somehow better than a minor. Most of us, however, reserve a valued place in our reading lives for the “great minor poet”—someone whose work is of the highest distinction, is original and memorable, and gives great...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Beach, Christopher. “The New Criticism and Poetic Formalism.” In The Cambridge Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Poetry, pp. 137-53. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Offers a biographical and critical study of Ransom and his work.

Bryant, J. A., Jr. “Poetry and Politics at Vanderbilt, 1920-40.” In Twentieth-Century Southern Literature, pp. 38-60. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997.

Provides an overview of the Fugitives, the Agrarians, and the New Criticism movements.

Gelpi, Albert. “Robert Frost and John Crowe Ransom.” In A Coherent...

(The entire section is 357 words.)